Radicalization by means of social media

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© Photo credit: news.sky.com/story/stop-online-radicalisation-schools-told-10335164

Varvara Karaulova, a successful Moscow student, who wanted to join the terrorist organization of Islamic state (ISIS/Daesh) in December 2016 was sentenced to 4.5 years behind bars. This case illustrates that in the digital era, the process of radicalization and online recruitment is growing into an epidemic. In this ruthless battle, the importance of which could not be any graver, countries tend to cooperate with communication companies and other states to limit the spread of extremist Web content to avoid such scenario as of Karaulova and the rest. On that subject, two Kazakhstani experts were interviewed to shed light on the issue in the country.

How online radicalization occurs

It is beyond debate that the Internet has benefits on a global scale, but simultaneously, some of its user-generated content, encompassing blogs, social networks, discussion and graphic material sites, produce a problem called online radicalization. Along with virtual information dissemination and its free exchange, the Internet provides almost an unlimited access to every material, helps to create networks beyond borders and conceal one’s identity. Versatile in its purposes, the Internet specifically in the hands of terrorists can be used for fund-raising, sharing amalgam of specific information such as how to remain undetected by security services, and since recently even how to prevent drone attacks.

The features of the present online radicalization, “a process whereby individuals through their online interactions and exposures to various types of internet context, come to view violence as a legitimate method of solving social and political conflicts”, erase the boundaries between states’ geographical distance. For extremists and terrorists, the Internet has a specific role: ability to “reach” geographically unreachable individuals.
According to J.M. Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, The Hague and an affiliate of the SAFE Lab at Columbia University, the process of online recruitment includes four stages:

1) first contact with a potential recruit (mainly through radical and mainstream Muslim online communities);
2) creation of a “micro-community” in which recruiters are encouraged to guard themselves against the outside world;
3) a shift to private communications by using private messaging function in application with strong encryption;
4) encouragement of an action, when some recruits become social media activists while others go to hijra (“emigration”) to join a terrorist organization.

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Screenshot from Twitter. One of the accounts of “Authentic Tauheed”. 

“Authenic Tauheed” led by English-speaking radical Muslim cleric Abdullah Faisal, who has changed from supporting Al-Qaeda to a pro-Islamic State orientation. However, there are other Twitter, Facebook, Paltalk and YouTube accounts.

Academic focus

There is a sound understanding of the problem by scholars on the given issue that can be measured by the involvement of the academic community to elaborate it. According to the Google scholar results, for the last three years, the number of scholarly works in this domain has tripled (British and American spelling was used simultaneously by the next command: “internet radicalization” OR “internet radicalisation” and “online radicalization” OR “online radicalisation”). Since recently, in order to investigate massive online data, some scholars think that analyzing ‘big data’, by shifting from manual identification to algorithmic techniques, can be helpful to prevent online radicalization. As the Internet grew it was almost impossible to “digest” all given information simply because the number of such groups on the Internet grows exponentially. As a response, experts either collaborate with computer scientists or study machine learning techniques to collect primary data.

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In Kazakhstani realities, a social portrait of a terrorist is the following: an unemployed young man, around 28 years old with secondary education, without special religious education, married, with children. However, in terms of online radicalization both interviewed experts, Yulia Denissenko, Head of Association of Legal Entities “Religions research centers association”, and Anastassiya Reshetnyak, a young researcher, are on the same page. They claim that anyone who is in a difficult situation, marginalized or dissatisfied with society/state might become a subject of online recruitment.

More specifically, “the online recruitment can work out when these two conditions are met: supply must comply with demand and when the level of internal stress exceeds the norm,” says Yulia Denissenko. She continues: “No one is immune from the second condition. Everyone has their own problems, failures associated with work or residence, even age-related changes can provoke serious stress.” Her conclusion is that no one has a perpetual ‘insurance’ from falling into a radical group. Add to this low level of critical consciousness, gaps in education/upbringing, which in its all levels is sought to impose dependency, plus many other aggravating factors – hence, we won’t get a rosy picture.

Such terroristic organizations as ISIS invest a substantial amount of efforts to recruit potential allegiants via social networks. As Anastassiya Reshetnyak claims, “the most popular method of social networks’ use is the creation of groups in messengers like WhatsApp and Telegram, where group members share videos, extremist content texts. The main ‘advantage’ of radicals here is their ‘black-and-white view’ of the world and ‘simple’ recipes to improve one’s living situation.”

How to counter online radicalization

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Online radicalization could also be tackled online – in social networks and blogs that people use every day. Millions of people open daily their social network apps, scroll the newsfeed and interact with each other. It wouldn’t be a trouble all to find extremist propaganda in the Web. For example, ISIS has a series of English-speaking pictographs depicting its military operations. EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) has several suggestions for those involved in countering online extremism and radicalization by using the potential of social networks. Here are some bullet points one can use as an antidote to tackle online radicalization and extremism, which might be adopted by popular in Kazakhstan Vkontakte social network:

– ‘Counstructive counter speech’ was the most popular successful type of content;
– Use a wide range of voices to deliver your messages effectively;
– Make your target group very specific;
– Keep posts simple to enable snowball effect: don’t post a lot of text (unless it is emotional content);
– Upload videos directly to Facebook and use subtitles (because often people don’t play the sound);
– Find supporters with a big reach (e.g. Michelle Obama’s #BringBackOurGirls). Use these people as influencers. Bring them to share your story within their network.
– Post at least one piece content a day.

For Kazakhstan, such a technique can be used as a pilot version, for example in Vkontakte and Facebook group like Information analysis center “Ansar” of the Directorate of Religious Affairs of Aktobe oblast. Communication work at the local level is crucial and there is an urgent need to work on a strategy handling online radicalization, collaborating with special Kazakhstani and foreign organizations.

Adopted last year, the resolution 70/291 of the United Nations General Assembly underlines the urgent need to counter extremism and radicalization processes online. The collaboration of the year between Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube in terms of curbing the spread of online terrorist content gives hope to a more efficient work of decreasing global online extremist content by creating “hashes” database. Moreover, the next step can also be an invitation to join the campaign of all respective stakeholders.

Since 2007 the number of Internet users in Kazakhstan grew in 18 times. As the number of people with Internet access increases, so are the chances for those who operate online to recruit individuals and those to be recruited respectively for joining the ranks. This relationship is not that simple, however, presents the general idea behind that it is easier to get radicalized online nowadays than ever before without any physical contact with your discourser. In most cases, the first response of any government is to increase censorship by regularly monitoring the destructive Web content and Kazakhstan is no exception. For instance, according to Committee of National Security of Kazakhstan monthly 70 000 online extremist materials are being neutralized and around 40 web resources are being blocked.

Our expert, Yulia Denissenko, asks “why only the government should be responsible for the fight against extremism (including online radicalization)? It is very convenient to choose a “guilty one” and take him to a task. At my job I often communicated with mothers of terrorists. You know, they can not remember the last time they hugged children and told them, how they love them. Regarding government measures – in Kazakhstan, there are several programs that directly or indirectly are connected with the anti-terrorism agenda. Recently the Ministry of Religious Affairs and civil society was founded, which aims to unite the efforts of the state and public institutions in the fight against radicalization and extremism.”

Anastassiya Reshetnyak continues that “effectiveness of the new Ministry can be assessed at least a year after its operation.” Moreover, there is no reliable statistics about recruited, online recruited and deradicalized people in Kazakhstan, as expert says, “officials claim this is a security requirement that is done for a reason to feel a fewer sense of community for recruited with those who share similar views.”

Answering the question, how can the Kazakhstani government lessen the recruitment and radicalization processes, both interviewees gave their own perspectives. Whereas Yulia Denissenko thinks that state officials should “work on the quality rather than the quantity, by transitioning to global projects in the education, social services, raise their own personnel”, Anastassiya Reshetnyak underlines that “it would be effective to actively involve civil society and NGOs in the implementation of such programs.” What is more important, experts agree on – is to improve the image of the government, by increasing the level of trust to state institutions, adequately respond to public moods and solve resonant issues in time.

Without question, the 21st century is the era of digital radicalization. Such virtual peps in terms of sermons, videos, and blogs that are viral and can be the last trigger for some extreme activities. Therefore, governmental attacks should be and are conducted on two fronts: offline by offering to lost ones’ multiple alternatives and ensuring that laws are enforced and online by proactively challenging cancer-like extremist online ideas with countering malicious virtual propaganda. Non-response to online challenges can hit like a straight jab at the current countering policy, knocking out for a while in this non-stop confrontation.

Prepared by Madina Bizhanova

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